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Executive Skills and Your Child With Learning Disabilities

Executive Functioning and BrainAs the parent of a school-age child with learning disabilities (LD), you know that basic patterns of thought such as controlling impulses, flexibility, planning, and organizing must steadily develop and improve as a child advances in school. If they don’t, children fail in small ways and larger ones. Each assignment not completed—or completed but not turned in—each lost notebook and late, hurried project, takes a toll on a child’s self-esteem (and a parent’s patience). Performance anxiety becomes more and more exhausting. The stress of feeling overwhelmed leads some children to misbehave, others to withdraw. Some children decide it’s less scary not to try than it is to try and fail.

These brain-based habits of thought are crucial to all learning. They are called executive skills.

What Are Executive Skills?

No matter what your occupation, you are an executive in at least one way. Everyone uses “executive skills.” Whether you’re taking out the recycling bags or preparing an annual report, you need to understand the task, plan the most efficient way to do it, follow through, and sometimes revise or start again. No one can “execute,” or perform, the many things people need to do without calling on these basic brain functions.

If you type “executive skills” (or “executive functioning”) into your favorite search engine, you’ll get hundreds of hits. It’s an unfortunate term, in a way, because it sounds like a class for budding CEOs. Think of it as an umbrella category for the set of mental processes that your child with learning disabilities probably struggles with, the skills that can have a serious and even profound impact on school success.

Executive skills develop gradually and at different rates for different people. Most children struggle at one time or another with planning, organization and follow-through. Some will, through maturation, good teaching and trial and error, independently figure out ways to overcome or compensate for their executive skills weaknesses.

Learning disabilities, though, complicate this development. Children with learning disabilities nearly always have difficulty with one or more executive skills. Descriptions of executive skill weaknesses often overlap descriptions of learning disabilities. And children with LD will likely have trouble developing these skills on their own.

As with other parts of their education, children with LD have a harder time and need more support. Weaknesses in crucial habits of mind can lead to a spiral of failure and low self-esteem. The good news is that you can help your child recognize, improve and work around his or her weaknesses in planning and organizational skills once you know what to look for.

Weaknesses in executive skills are very likely an important reason why a child with LD can’t seem to get organized, procrastinates endlessly, and seems to undermine himself by doing school work and then not turning it in. When you understand what executive skills are, you can better support your child’s organizational challenges at home and, in partnership with teachers, at school.

Executive Skills and ADHD

If your child has Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), he or she is sure to have weaknesses in executive skills. Each child has different strengths and challenges, but all children with ADHD need help with executive skills. Researchers now believe that ADHD is primarily a disorder of executive skills, rather than of attention. Children with this condition aren’t able to regulate themselves well enough to be able to plan, control impulses or organize. It’s important to remember that not all children with weak executive skills have ADHD. However, all children with ADHD have weaknesses in one or more executive skills—because such weaknesses are part of the definition of ADHD.